C.W: This story contains descriptions of the dead and death rituals.
March 9th, 2022
When the news of your passing finally arrived, I felt relieved. Of course, people will say that is how one would expect a daughter-in-law to feel. But they haven’t had a journey that you and I share. How the ticking clock had turned me from a cowering bride resentful of your possessiveness to the one who gently cradled your head in the crook of her arm and fed you the mashed food.
I saw your boy-my husband, repeat the doctor’s words in a choked voice before slipping the phone down on the unmade bed. The next moment he was talking to you, hugging you in the air as if your invisible form had already travelled miles to be with him. I winced, but all I could offer was a tight squeeze across his shoulders as I bit down my lower lip. For I suspected even he believed I wanted this to happen.
We took the next flight, reached our hometown and unlocked the house where you, your grandson and I had stayed together when your son was away on the field. It had gathered dust.
I got busy with cleaning the house as your son got busy running about the town to make arrangements- both of us glad to throw ourselves into mind-numbing chores.
When your daughter peeped from outside through the open front door of the then cleaned house and announced your arrival in her shrivelled voice, I jumped up from my seat and hurried to the hearse van. Your son got down from it. His eyes screamed in agony.
I saw your son, grandchildren and the driver struggling to bring down the freezer box. It was rolled into the house in silence, broken only by the grunts of ‘lift’. I felt a vice-like grip on my throat when I spotted a black body bag inside it. As your son and daughter unzipped it what emerged first was a face covered in white cloth. Something inside me snapped. But my eyes stayed dry.
Your daughter and I covered you in your best silk saree and applied a thin streak of vermillion on your forehead. Your son and grandchildren adorned you with garlands made of roses, lilies and tulsi. You continued to lie motionless in the freezer box with your neck rested on a well-concealed 2ltr Bisleri bottle.
The relatives came and left through the night. They cried, shared the anecdotes, laughed and sighed. I sat by your side and watched your son morph into a ball of anger, disbelief and grief.
The diya that I lit by the side of your head burns with a clarity none in this room possesses at the moment. It will burn for the next 10 days. For the last 10 days you will be with your loved ones, and me.
March 10th, 2022
The two men- one with the musical instruments and the other with everything else that is needed for the ritual arrived at the gate early morning. They announced their presence with the drum beats, bells and trumpet.
They built a stove with seven mudbricks at the gate, made a fire and cooked a potful of turmeric rice. Then, they built a bier with two bamboos and woven coconut fronds.
The transparent lid was lifted and you were rolled out of that doorstep you had slipped on many times in the last few years. You were placed in the garden from where you once picked hibiscus and jasmine.
We walked to you, one after the other; to oil your head, rub shikakai powder on it and pour water from head to toe – thrice. Your daughter and I draped you in a new golden orange saree you would have loved.
You were then rolled out of the gate and placed on the bier with your feet out of the house that you lived in and may never step into again.
Once in the hearse van, with your grandson throwing out a handful of flowers and your daughter throwing out a handful of puffed rice on the road at regular intervals I remembered that the documents required at the crematorium were left at home. I announced this in general to the group and in particular to your dhoti-clad son, who made sharp utterances dipped in misery. Once we reached the crematorium, I made a quick run back to the house and got the documents.
When I returned, I saw you placed at an annexe with the turmeric rice strewn around you and its container broken. I was given the incense sticks to pay my last respects and to circumambulate. Then, your son carried an earthen water pot on his shoulders and one of the two funeral men carved a hole in it. The water gushed out as your son walked around the bier. But not the tears from his eyes. After the rounds, the pot was tossed backwards shattering it.
Your soul was set free.
Amidst the bells, chants and burning camphor the bier was carried and placed on a track that led to the furnace.
We were asked to take one last look at your face. The spring door of the furnace snapped down after you with brutal speed and force.
In a blank moment that followed, my sight drifted in that grey-black unfurnished facility and stopped at a couple of pillows thrown by the side of the furnace. The one with the embroidered corners belonged to you. Tears rolled down my eyes. However, I composed myself quickly avoiding an awkward embrace by a distant relative.
We returned home, cleaned it again, bathed and relit the diya.
March 11th, 2022
All the relatives have left. They will be back, after a few days.
The hired plastic chairs have been returned. They will be hired back, after a few days.
Till then, for the next eight evenings, you shall be served your preferred delicacies. (Quite a few of which I learnt from you,
at times begrudgingly).
In the evening, I draped the coffee table in the best table cloth I could find at your house.
Your son carefully unpacked a flat parcel and pulled out a framed photograph of a middle-aged lady with a smile. She bore very little resemblance to the frail, suffering being that he had lost- but for the eyes, maybe.
I put a jasmine garland on your photo. Tears flowed down your son’s face for the first time in three days.
I hugged him, tightly.
And then offered you a steaming plate of beans, carrots, cauliflower and green peas in spiced coconut curry with poori. Perfected over the years to suit your taste. Hope you liked it.
March 13th, 2022
We left home early morning and made a brief stop at the crematorium. Your son went in and returned with a white-cloth-wrapped earthen pot. I put a marigold garland around its neck. Your son, daughter and I took turns to place you on our laps on your final journey.
We talked about the new townships and structures that had sprouted along the highway. Theorised about how everything that had a beginning will have an end. And how you could have been saved from that end.
I wish there was a furnace to burn our guilt into ashes.
We reached the river bank where a wide variety of rituals were in progress. We found a priest.
Your son changed into the same dhoti and took a dip in the river. The priest slid the white cloth off the mouth of the pot as he would have to hundreds before this. My stomach churned. The priest made your son offer you honey, ghee, curd, turmeric, and vermillion and chanted mantras inviting you to accept them.
To accept them and move onwards.
Your son carried you to the river and dispersed the last traces of your physical presence in the flowing river. Afterwards, he shaved his head and moustache. He looked stern.
Your physical self had returned to where it came from, and our physical selves should go back to playing their roles.
But what about our souls? Especially your son’s.
March 19th, 2022
The floral designers did a splendid job. A wreath made of gerberas and ferns encircled your beautiful recommissioned photograph. You looked familiar in it, still in your last spurt of vibrancy.
The pandit arrived on time and busied himself and us in preparation for the 11th-day ceremony.
The relatives turned up and busied themselves in helping me, chatting among themselves and passing comments on the proceedings which the pandit took sportingly.
The caterers laid out a lavish spread on the shaded terrace.
Your son looked solemn, poised and handsome as he sat across from pandit with a blazing havan in between them. I fervently wished for it to purge the pain he kept stashed in his heart.
Over the next three hours, through the holy water, sacred fire and a hearty feast we took our first step towards acceptance.
That you were with us for the past ten days, unseen but keenly felt.
That we had celebrated your life befitting the way you had fiercely loved your clan and left behind people who loved you back.
That we had nudged you to break free from it.
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Great story! You have described those rituals in a realistic but poetic style that makes it emotional--yet not too dramatic! I really liked your writing style.
Thank you Nandini, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!
A great story, Suma. I always enjoy hearing about different cultures from my own, and you wrote it in such a poetic way. Not only did I enjoy the story, I learned something new as well. I have to agree with J.C and Zack that 'I wish there was a furnace to burn our guilt into ashes.' was a wonderful line, and my favourite of the piece.
Thank you for your kind words of appreciation, Alex. I truly value them🙂
This was a fascinating piece. Your opening hooked me right away – the narrator's voice is strong. I like the descriptions of the various rites, which are interesting enough on their own, but the way the characters react to them, how they're changed by them over time, was nice. There was a connection there, between action, thought and emotion. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you Michal, for your uplifting feedback. I truly appreciate it!
So nice to see another story from you, Suma! And wow, what a story this was. I agree with J.C. about the POV. I hadn't even considered formatting a piece in diary style but addressing a "you" character throughout. That's pretty creative. Beautiful language throughout. I, an American, have very limited knowledge of the death rituals of other parts of the world, so I appreciate you not only giving me a look into the customs of another culture, but doing so in a poetic and engaging way. There was a great mix of custom and character. I think ...
Zack, Thank you for such an in-depth and heartfelt feedback. It made my day. I'm relieved to know I could convey the mood and the cultural practices without coming across as heavy handed. I truly treasure your feedback and thanks once again.
Suma, What a beautiful piece. I really like the point of view you chose for this, as many of us have experienced being the "in-law" and the trials and trepidations that may come along with that. The cultural references throughout were so poetic. At times, I felt myself transported with them in all of the different rituals performed, complete with the sensory details to immerse me in the setting. Wonderful. This single line was the most heartbreaking for me: I wish there was a furnace to burn our guilt into ashes. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for the read and the appreciation, J.C. I'm glad that you found the cultural references poetic. I was not sure whether I should post it till the last minute as I was apprehensive about getting them across with due dignity, but not overwhelmingly ritualistic. Your wonderful comment is reassuring. Thanks once again.